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Alberta bracing for a long wildfire season fuelled by drought

Alberta is bracing for another challenging fire season and with fire officials urging communities to prepare for conditions to grow more volatile as a summer drought settles in. 

With many communities across the province already parched because of a lack of winter snow cover, officials Thursday urged Albertans to be vigilant in the weeks ahead. 

Christie Tucker, an Alberta Wildfire information unit manager, said crews are preparing for a long and difficult season. 

“While there is a temporary dip in temperatures this week, it doesn’t mean that wildfire danger is over,” Tucker said during a news conference.

“The drought conditions we’ve experienced in Alberta mean that it is still possible for trees and grasses to burn, particularly in the high winds that we have been seeing.” 

As of Thursday, 50 wildfires are burning across the province. Of those, four are classified as being held and 46 are now classified as under control. 

WATCH | Alberta’s 2023 wildfire season was a record breaker. Another hectic one is forecast:

Alberta’s 2023 wildfire season was a record breaker. Another hectic one is forecast

7 days ago

Duration 1:49

A lack of snowfall has Alberta Wildfire preparing for a busy wildfire season. Dry conditions around the Edmonton area have already led to early grass fires blowing in that direction.

The provincial total does not include fires burning outside Alberta’s forest protection zones. None of the forest fires burning across the province are considered a threat to communities or critical infrastructure.

Tucker said the season began early with crews being deployed to fires that began during last year’s unprecedented fire season. The official start of fire season was brought forward 10 days in Alberta in March.  

The vast majority of the fires now burning began last year and smouldered through winter. Only 12 of the current fires ignited this spring.

“We started this year with 64 wildfires still burning from last year,” Tucker said.

“While we’ve been working diligently to extinguish them, it does mean that firefighters are entering the spring with a heavier fire load than usual.” 

As of Thursday, the risk of wildfires was ranked from low to high across Alberta with the Lac La Biche and Peace River regions considered at the most risk due to current conditions. 

Many areas in Alberta are dealing with drought conditions, particularly in areas of southern Alberta, where communities are already grappling with how to ration water this summer.

Across the north, meagre snow cover from a dry winter has disappeared quickly, leaving the soil bone-dry.

Tucker said 500 hectares has already been consumed by fire so far this season. That is up by about 400 hectares compared to the same last year. 

“We’re hoping for more precipitation to come, but we’re prepared for what will happen if it doesn’t,” Tucker said. 

During Thursday’s update, Todd Loewen, minister of Forestry and Parks, said Alberta is well-equipped to respond with hundreds of firefighters trained and ready to be deployed.

He said the province has enlisted the help of 297 government wildland firefighters, 280 fire attack firefighters and 172 seasonal support staff, in addition to its regular permanent full-time staff. 

He said the province has also secured additional contracts for air tankers, heavy equipment, and night vision-equipped helicopters. 

“Alberta’s government is taking a proactive approach,” he said.  “However, it is still important that every Albertan do their part to prevent wildfires.” 

Last year was a record year for wildfires in the province. An early May heatwave fuelled fires across the province, triggering a provincial state of emergency and ultimately forcing 38,000 Albertans to evacuate from their homes. 

A total of 1,088 wildfires burned about 2.2 million hectares in Alberta from March 1 to Oct. 31. The province’s five-year average prior to 2023 was 226,000 hectares of burned land.

The vast majority of forest fires in Alberta are human-caused. On Thursday, Tucker said Albertans need to remember that they have a critical role to play in easing the risk. 

“We’re starting early and we have a potentially long season ahead of us and we need to work together to prevent wildfires.”

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